A House of Delegates committee will take up a bill today that would bar lawmakers from knowingly doling out scholarships to their relatives or the family members of colleagues. But even if the General Assembly approves the changes, critics say, the measure will do little to curb a practice that they say amounts to political patronage.
The legislature's scholarship program has long been debated in Annapolis, with some lawmakers pushing to abandon what they call an antiquated system that invites cronyism, perceived or real. Others defend the practice as a tool to aid deserving constituents who could not afford college otherwise.
Last month, the state Senate approved a bill that would restrict how lawmakers award the scholarships. That measure comes before the House Ways and Means Committee today.
The Sun reported three years ago that several legislators had awarded scholarships to the relatives of colleagues and other politically connected people.
Senators each get $138,000 to distribute annually in their districts while delegates each get $34,488.
"It's amazing when you think about it," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican and critic of the program. "You get $138,000 a year. For a five-year period, that's more than $500,000. With that much money, you can make every person happy. The recipients' parents, sisters, brothers - they all remember that scholarship. You'll never need to campaign again."
Scholarship defenders insist that the program is worthwhile.
Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, a Montgomery County Democrat who voted for the new restrictions, said she assigns a committee to review applications and make recommendations for awards. Guidance counselors in high schools throughout her district have also alerted her to extraordinary circumstances facing students. Forehand said she has made awards to many needy students, including a homeless man who attended Montgomery College.
"When people look at this and they say, 'Oh, it's so terrible and it's so unethical,' they just don't understand the difference this could make in a student's life," she said. "Some of these students don't have anything. You have a student with a lot of potential, but even $2,000 at a community college won't cover the cost of everything."
Forehand sponsored a bill, which the Senate passed unanimously, to increase the maximum award of Senate scholarships from $2,000 per year to the full cost of tuition and fees at the Maryland school the recipient attends. The change makes the awards similar to the House version of the scholarships. Currently, the Senate awards range from $200 to $2,000 a year.
The state's 2008 budget includes $11 million in taxpayer-funded scholarships for the General Assembly to distribute, representing about 10 percent of state-funded financial aid. Lawmakers can dispense the awards as they wish, as long as recipients are Maryland residents who attend a state college or university. Senators must consider financial need, but there is little oversight in determining how they do so.
In raising questions about the scholarships, Kittleman is following in the footsteps of his father, the late Robert H. Kittleman, who worked for 20 years as a delegate and senator to prevent lawmakers from giving out scholarships with few criteria or restrictions.
He said that he thinks most lawmakers have good intentions when awarding scholarships but that even a perceived conflict of interest can be damaging.
"I don't know of any legislator who would do it purely to buy a vote, but there is a perception out there," said Kittleman, the Senate minority whip.
The Senate voted 39-8 last month to keep lawmakers from awarding money to their relatives or the family members of colleagues, with some lawmakers objecting to an effort to "legislate common sense."
Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican who sponsored the measure, said he hoped that it would reinforce the integrity of the scholarships.
"If there were no abuses in the past, it wouldn't be necessary," said Simonaire, a freshman senator. "Certainly there's no majority of senators or delegates doing this, but if it happens one time, it's one time too many."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's Democrat who voted against the legislation, called Simonaire's measure a "bad bill."
"Nobody does that anyway," Miller said. "Here's someone new to the legislature casting disparagement on all of us who have served honorably for decades."
But some lawmakers have awarded scholarships to relatives of their colleagues.
Several years ago, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden gave $2,100 to the daughter of Del. Talmadge Branch, a fellow Baltimore Democrat. McFadden said he did not know the student was Branch's daughter.
"I had no clue whatsoever who that young lady was," McFadden said yesterday. "It's impossible to know every Branch, every Harrison in your district."
McFadden, who voted against Simonaire's bill, said lawmakers should know better than to knowingly give scholarships to family members.
"Anyone who's dumb enough to give it to a relative or a political operative, well that's just common sense," he said.
McFadden called the scholarships "one more tool for an elected official to help move a family forward."
"You'd be surprised by the number of people I hear from who don't have family help or family support," he said. "They look to their elected officials for help."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, called Simonaire's measure a "common sense bill" that is likely to pass in the House. In previous years, the House has passed measures to abolish the program, but the efforts died in the Senate. Busch said he doubts the Senate would alter its previous positions on the issue.
"The fact of the matter is, the Senate is more vested in this than we are," he said.
Kittleman said he hopes the bill to prohibit lawmakers from offering scholarships to their relatives is a step toward eliminating lawmakers' authority over the awards altogether.
But watchdog groups say the change is so incremental it does little to confront the overarching concerns about favoritism.
"There's still a lot of room for legislators to use this as a fund to reward donors, friends and people they want favors from," said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause. "We don't have problems with needy Maryland students receiving scholarships, but it's just not appropriate for legislators to be handing out free gifts to whoever they want with little oversight."
Maryland's practice of awarding scholarships dates to 1872, when full-tuition scholarships were established at St. John's College, according to the Maryland State Archives. An educational commission would select two students from each Senate district, with the advice from senators.
Similar awards were later established at other universities. The program took on its current form in 1967, said Helen Szablya, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Twenty Maryland lawmakers have divorced themselves from the process and turn over their awards to the commission to distribute.
Three delegates - including Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat - hand over their scholarship money for specific awards.
Rosenberg directs his allotment of scholarship money to the state's loan assistance and repayment program, which helps people pursuing a career in public service repay their academic debt.
He said he would support a bill to bar lawmakers from awarding scholarships to their relatives and that removing lawmakers from the awarding process would "professionalize" the program.
Said Rosenberg: "It's up to our constituents to judge us on how we handle the money."
By the numbers
The Senate has passed a bill to prohibit lawmakers from awarding scholarships to their relatives or to the families of their colleagues. The measure represents the latest effort to modify a controversial program that allows legislators to make direct educational grants to college students. Here are some key figures associated with the program:
Annual cost: $11 million
Share of Maryland financial aid: 10 percent
Amount per senator: $138,000 annually
Amount per delegate: $34,488 annually
Maximum scholarship amount: $2,000 a year in the Senate; cost of attending school in the House